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What Do We Really Know About Building Cross-Agency Networks?

There’s a lot of literature out there, but no roadmap.

As millennials join the workforce, they are bringing their propensity for social networking with them. As a result, network-centered approaches to doing work will likely become more prevalent.

Government and nonprofits have already been pioneering the use of collaborative networks during the past two decades to solve complex societal challenges, such as cleaning up waterways, preventing child abuse, serving the mentally ill and reducing smoking. Much of this groundbreaking work has been done without a roadmap that shows what works and under what circumstances using networks is more effective than relying on traditional hierarchies or the marketplace to achieve public goals. The literature to guide practitioners is growing rapidly, but there are no guideposts on what to read and what to pay attention to.

Now there is a place both experienced network leaders and neophytes can go to learn more.

The IBM Center for The Business of Government digests the key academic literature of the past decade in a special report, “Interorganizational Networks: A Review of the Literature to Inform Practice by Janice Popp, Brinton Milward, Gail MacKean, Ann Casebeer and Ronald Lindstrom. This report has been under development for several years, largely as a labor of love, to synthesize literature from various professional disciplines into a one-stop resource guide.

University of Maryland professor Donald Kettl has observed that network-based approaches challenge traditional public administration because American political institutions revolve around the importance of organizational boundaries. But, he says, the use of networks in government is growing because “as problems become more complex, no organization can hope to control or manage all the inputs and outputs that affect it.” Kettl, an astute observer of public administration, predicts the continued development of interorganizational networks in government.

The report examines key concepts and characteristics of interorganizational networks, their various types and functions, as well as their life cycles and how to assess their effectiveness. Of particular value to practitioners is its examination of network governance, leadership and management, and structure.

Network Governance

Because many networks are not legal entities, the authors note, “the legal imperative for governance is not always present” the way it is for most public sector hierarchical organizations. The guide, however, describes three distinct types of governance structure for network-based initiatives:

  • Shared governance, in which all participants contribute to the management and leadership of the network. This can be effective with six or fewer participating entities.
  • A lead organization, in which the network manager and administrative support is vested in one of the key network member. This often is used when an initiative is driven from the top down.
  • A network administration organization, in which a separate entity is created to manage the network and an outside manager is hired to handle the administrative elements.

When choosing a governance structure, the authors say, various contextual features of a network need to be taken into account (e.g., the level of trust among members and the degree of congruence around common goals). Selecting the right mix, they say, is “critical for explaining network effectiveness.”

Leadership and Management

Network leadership and management "cannot be heavy, centrally directed control,” say the authors. Often­­­­, there is no chain of command, so “informal power based on interpersonal relationships can be more important than formal power.”

Researchers such as Chris Silvia and Michael McGuire “attempted to identify the behaviors that public managers displayed in their roles as network leaders,” the report says. Interestingly, the Office of Personnel Management also made a similar attempt several years ago when it was directed by law to develop a description of functional competencies for “goal leaders” who often are responsible for leading cross-agency networks to achieve national goals.

“An empowering, participatory leadership style, along with collaborative decision-making processes, fosters a sense of shared purpose and network member participation,” the authors say. More specifically, researcher June Holly identifies four leadership styles of “network weavers:”

  • Connector catalyst
  • Project coordinator
  • Network facilitator
  • Network guardian

The authors make a distinction between network leadership and network management. Network management, they observe, focuses more on the “activities and processes involved in assembling and managing a network through its varying developmental phases.”

Network researchers Robert Agranoff and Michael McGuire “describe the overarching role of a network manager as being able to increase the stock of trust and reciprocity in the network,” the authors say, noting “the horizontal management tools or skills typically associated with collaboration, such as negotiation and persuasion, are ‘necessary but not sufficient’ . . . An effective collaborative manager, then, must have expertise in both relationship building and process management.”

Network Structures

“The study of interorganizational networks borrows heavily from what has been learned about the structure of social networks,” in which the actors are individuals, not organizations, the report says. In social network studies, each node represents an actor in a network. As a result, “studying the connections between the nodes of interorganizational networks can provide information about network structure and its relationship to network effectiveness,” the authors add.

Network researchers Keith Provan and Robin Lemaire observe that the effectiveness of a network is dependent, in part, on the ties between and among its members. They describe the importance of “selective integration”—who joins the network—noting that “network links must be targeted and appropriate.” Networks should comprise a mix of members with strong and weak ties among themselves, because that helps sustain a network over time. Members with strong ties among one other are good for building trust and sharing information. Members with weak ties, however, can fill knowledge holes and are “useful for generating new ideas and approaches,” the report says.

In conclusion, the authors reflect on their own efforts, which mirror the feelings of many practitioners who have been trying to make sense out of the literature on networks. The authors say they were “frustrated by the lack of clarity in the literature on elements of fundamental importance to networks and their functioning.” Hopefully, their report will help reduce some of that frustration for you. 

(Image via Ana de Sousa/